For a first-time author, writing a book is a proposition both daunting and opaque—at least it was for me. As this decade-long process draws to a close, I find myself reflecting on my own experience and wondering about others’.
For many legal (and other kinds of) historians, a first book grows out of a dissertation. The two genres are quite different, however, as even a casual perusal of academic publishing advice literature reveals. Dissertations often contain dense discussions of secondary literature and historiography, for example. Others are cobbled together from a series of articles or case studies.
My own dissertation was somewhat disjointed chronologically and even thematically. Early chapters traced the troubled history of analogies between race and sex discrimination, culminating in a study of 1970s feminist constitutional litigation. One of my favorite chapters, on the use of sex segregation in racial desegregation plans, didn’t quite fit and was rather awkwardly tacked on at the end (it later became a stand-alone article). My story ended rather abruptly and arbitrarily in 1979, before Ronald Reagan’s election, the final defeat of the ERA, and the appointment of Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court, among other developments. And several topics of great importance to the book’s central subject--“reasoning from race” as a feminist legal strategy—got short shrift, including pregnancy discrimination, reproductive rights, disparate impact theory, and Title VII.
As it turned out, “revision” wasn’t the right way to think about what needed to happen to my dissertation. “Major overhaul involving substantial new archival research and writing more than half the manuscript from scratch” was more like it. What have your experiences been with turning dissertations into books? Are there particular challenges we, as legal historians, face in this process?